Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Homecoming: "Manchester by the Sea"

In decades to come, the career of the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan will likely be taught in film schools as an object lesson in what happened to the American cinema in the first years of the 21st century. Where graduates of the music video and advertising industries were handed blank cheques to set off all manner of explosions, Lonergan has had to bow and scrape to assemble three movies in 17 years, one of which was all but buried by the studio that funded it. Manchester by the Sea, the third of these films, marks a return to the familial tensions and unhappy homecomings of Lonergan's 2000 debut You Can Count on Me, and a return to something else, too: that more adult form of drama the major studios have abandoned to cable television and streaming services in their rush to recoup easy superhero bucks. That it should return in a movie backed by the emergent Amazon Studios is an irony it would take a grown-up to recognise.

The first sign we aren't being spoonfed, rather left to feel our own way into this story, is that Lonergan has created a protagonist who isn't of a mood to let anybody in without a lot of hard work. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a bluff, solitary janitor, entrenched in a snowy Boston, who spends what seems like the entire first act engaged in the thankless task of trying to keep his tenants' front steps free from precipitation; by night, for his own entertainment, he gets angry-drunk and seeks out his next barfight. This grim routine is interrupted when news breaks that his brother Joe has died, returning him to the frozen-over childhood home enshrined in the title. In Manchester, Lee is greeted with gasps and mutters that speak to his infamy among the female townsfolk; his arrival also sparks flashbacks that seek to explain how we got here from there. In these, the Lee we see is a family man and - most crucially of all - a happy drunk. What happened?

It's soon clear that returning to a home without an obvious father figure confers a new-found responsibility on Lee's shoulders: one of his tasks in Manchester is to shepherd Joe's son - and his nephew - Patrick (Lucas Hedges), an especially hormonal teenager negotiating that formative moment when a boy first invites his gal to stay over, although Lee's response, when asked whether he might be open to a longer-term custody arrangement, is a shrugging "I'm just the back-up." On television, Manchester by the Sea would be one of those sitcoms in which an individual wholly unsuited to parenthood and domesticity has those very conditions imposed upon him - except that situation plays out here in a starkly muted palette, and with the understanding we're heading not towards a group hug, but the cause of Lee's hurt. This, it turns out, is a tragically simple mistake, one by which Lonergan can acknowledge luck - pure, dumb luck - as a defining (and perhaps the defining) facet of our existence.

The masterstroke is that the film is never allowed to seem schematic or predetermined. Having set all this down on paper, Lonergan the director allows his scenes to breathe, the better to allow us to scope out this location, with its piled snowbanks and bracing marine breezes, and to allow his expert cast to squabble and bicker and thereby rough up his dialogue into something like life. The big difference between Lonergan and other playwrights-turned-directors is that he's never precious: the film may have the trappings of tragedy, but - scene by scene - it assumes the unpredictable rhythms of a comedy. There is, for starters, a sly background joke here about the kind of hard-grafting, hard-drinking family of blue-collar men it might be tough, if not impossible, for anybody of a more sensitive disposition to peaceably co-exist with; and yet the priapic Patrick (whose irrepressible horniness is such you'll never hear the phrase "logging off" in quite the same way again) is a blast of useful energy who gives the jaded Lee the momentum he needs to rebuild.

The actors, necessarily, seem alert to every possibility. Affleck, in an indelible portrait of damaged, emotionally inarticulate masculinity, appears beset by an ongoing internal tumult that spills out in harsh words and thrown punches; we sense the softness and joy taken from him at a pivotal moment, but he also allows us to note Lee taking on some of his late brother's stability. (In a smart casting coup, Joe is played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, whose square-jawed solidity has been the bedrock of recent small-screen dramas, from Friday Night Lights to Bloodline.) The supporting players work wonders, too, often with just a clutch of Lonergan's lines to equip themselves with: Gretchen Mol as Joe's wife, understandably exasperated by all the testosterone; Tate Donovan, late of Damages, lending additional heft to a one-scene bit as Patrick's ice hockey coach. (It appears part of Lonergan's project is to reclaim fine performers from the blue-chip TV dramas in which they've been hiding out.)

Best of all, perhaps, is Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi, just smart enough to have spotted the protagonist's festering resentment at his fate, and to have walked away some time ago: the tentative reunion she and Affleck share on an ordinary street corner will be one of the most affecting encounters you'll witness in a cinema all year. In such sure hands, Manchester by the Sea comes to assume far greater shape and purpose than Lonergan's grand film maudit Margaret, that moral maze that turned into a logjam both before and behind the camera. Here, the director and his players mould everyday conversations such as these - with their awkward pauses and reachouts, their sudden flurries of disaccord - into the kind of drama we relate to and involve ourselves with because it speaks eloquently to those struggles and battles we face at every turn in the road. Two or three more of these things, and we might read the first of the thinkpieces about cinema rising from the dead.

Manchester by the Sea opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.  

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